Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

Visual Arts

Volume XXVII Number 2
Spring 2005

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ancient jawbone
© Sileshi Semaw

researcher at microscope
© David Bricker

methane
Courtesy photo

Abstracts

Ancient Ancestors

In the fields of northeastern Ethiopia, a team of scientists has discovered rare new fossils of a human ancestor dating back 4.5 to 4.3 million years. Sileshi Semaw, research associate at Indiana University’s CRAFT (Center for Research into the Anthropological Foundations of Technology) and Stone Age Institute, is also director of the Gona Paleoanthropological Research Project in Afar, Ethiopia. In a recent issue of Nature, he reported that the project team has recovered more than 30 fossils—primarily jaws and teeth—from at least nine early humanlike individuals assigned to Ardipithecus ramidus. Scientists believe that A. ramidus is the first hominid genus to arise after the lineage split that led to chimpanzees and humans. The recent Gona discoveries suggest that A. ramidus walked on two feet and dwelled in woodland and grassland areas with lakes, swamps, and springs nearby. Semaw has made other important discoveries at Gona, including the oldest known stone tools (about 2.5 million years old) used by ancestral humans. “Our latest research has shown that Gona is a unique site preserving a wealth of information on the biological origin as well as the cultural beginnings and evolution of humankind,” says Semaw.

Is the Price Right?

Online bargain hunters know to shop price-comparison sites for the best prices. After all, conventional wisdom says the explosion of price-comparison sites means only the lowest-price firms survive, right? Michael Baye, professor of economics and business at IU’s Kelley School of Business in Bloomington, says don’t be too sure. An expert in online pricing strategies, Baye—along with John Morgan of University of California at Berkeley and Patrick Scholten of Bentley College in Massachusetts—has documented dramatic variation in prices at price-information sites. In one study tracking 36 consumer electronics products at Shopper.com, Baye and his colleagues found that the range between the lowest and highest price for a product reached nearly 60 percent. And a product’s price from the same firm may vary from day to day, too. One reason: “Hit-and-run pricing—short-term price promotions undertaken at unpredictable intervals—is an effective and widely used ‘weapon’ for E-retail managers,” say Baye and his colleagues. In other words, firms change their prices often to keep the competition guessing. In an interview on the Cnet technology news site (http://news.com.com/), Baye likened the strategy to a soccer game: “If the goalie consistently jumps to the right, the (penalty) kicker can score every time. The goalie has to mix up his strategies so his opponent can’t predict (where) he’s going.” But take heart: shopping online can still net a bargain. Baye estimates that online consumers save about 18 percent on consumer electronics. See more about Baye’s research at nash-equilibrium.com

Re$earch

In late 2004 and early 2005, Indiana University received three major research grants, including the largest grant to date for IU Bloomington, to further faculty research and work in life sciences and arts and humanities.

In November, the Lilly Endowment Inc. awarded IU $26 million as part of its $100 million statewide effort to enhance the state’s “intellectual capital.” A total of 37 Indiana colleges and institutions received funding. At IU, the $26 million is being used for three purposes:

  • $10 million to create six Presidential Life Sciences Professorships, three at the IU School of Medicine and three at IU Bloomington. The funds will help establish and equip laboratories for high-level researchers in basic and clinical neurosciences.
  • $10 million to endow 30 to 40 four-year student scholarships in the new merit-based Hoosier Presidential Scholars program.
  • $5 million to establish New Frontiers in Arts & Humanities, a five-year program to support and expand IU faculty research and creative work. The program is overseen by Geoff Conrad, director of the William Hammond Mathers Museum, in his role as special advisor to the vice president for research. The program has four components—grants for the development of new works in music, theater, visual art, dance, and other areas; funds for workshops, symposia, conferences, and other gatherings; support for extended visits to IU by distinguished scholars and performers; and money for national and international travel. (The remaining $1 million will support other activities associated with the grant.)

In December, IU Bloomington received $53 million to expand life sciences research, also from the Lilly Endowment Inc. It is the largest grant IUB has received to date. The funds will support the new Indiana Metabolomics and Cytomics Initiative (METACyt). Metabolomics and cytomics are emerging life sciences areas in which researchers use genetic information to explore and analyze the metabolism and inner processes of human cells. The METACyt Initiative will support IUB life scientists and attract outside researchers in biology, chemistry, physics, and medicine as well as specialists in computer science and informatics. The grant is also expected to spur intellectual property development and technology transfer in life sciences areas.

In February, the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded $348,441 to IU’s Archives of Traditional Music and to the Archive of World Music at Harvard University for a joint 18-month project to develop digital preservation processes for endangered audio recordings. Focusing on “field recordings (that are) carriers of unique, irreplaceable, and historically significant cultural heritage,” the Sound Directions: Digital Preservation and Access for Global Audio Heritage project will test standards and develop recommended practices for digital audio preservation and storage, emphasizing methods that are interoperable—usable and adaptable among institutions and over time. NEH Chairman and IU Distinguished Professor Emeritus Bruce Cole presented the grant to the Archives of Traditional Music and its director, Daniel Reed, assistant professor of folklore and ethnomusicology at IUB. The grant is the second largest among the NEH’s most recent awards for research and development. For more, see dlib.indiana.edu/projects/sounddirections/

Pursuing Probable Causes

A recently discovered genetic mutation is probably the most common cause of inherited Parkinson’s disease, according to Tatiana Foroud, associate professor of medical and molecular genetics at the IU School of Medicine, and her colleagues in the multi-site Parkinson’s Study Group. Foroud, a principal investigator in the international study, and other scientists have identified a defect on the LRRK2 gene, a mutation they say is responsible for up to 5 percent of all Parkinson’s disease among people with a family history of the disorder. At IU, Foroud focused on 767 patients from 358 families. Parkinson’s, a degenerative disease of the nervous system that causes significant tremors, has no cure and affects at least 500,000 Americans. The study’s findings, which could lead to new therapeutic approaches and improved genetic testing for the disease, were reported in The Lancet and covered in medical news internationally. Foroud is also involved in ongoing studies of alcoholism, looking for genes that cause susceptibility for alcoholism. In genetic studies of families, she is examining the differences in alcohol dependence in men and women as she looks for certain genetic combinations and variations that may determine the disease.

Like Water from a Stone

Debates about Earth’s supply of oil—the fossil fuel formed from decaying organisms just under the planet’s surface—range widely: Are we running out? When? What about the costs of oil exploration and production? Indiana University South Bend physicist and geologist Henry Scott doesn’t have quick answers to high gas prices or oil politics, but his research, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, points to a potentially huge and untapped energy supply in Deep Earth. In the laboratory, Scott and a team of researchers have produced methane—the main component in natural gas—under very high temperatures and pressures typical of those found many miles deep in the Earth’s upper mantle. Scott and the research team squeezed iron oxide, water, and calcite under enormous pressure and heated the materials up to 1,500 degrees Celsius (more than 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit). Methane formed readily from a simple reaction between the water and carbon-bearing rock, demonstrating that hydrocarbons can form in the absence of organic matter and remain stable in the extreme conditions of Earth’s interior. The implications for our world’s energy, ecology, and economy could be huge. For now, Scott says, “The study suggests that the hydrocarbon budget of the bulk Earth may be larger than conventionally assumed.”